David Bowie – Blackstar

8 01 2016

blackstarNew Bowie albums have always been a big deal and a major event for me. And it’s even more so now, as each release arrives I can’t help but wonder if I’m listening to the last Bowie studio album. The live shows look like they are over, and the time will come when the studio albums stop too, so excuse me for savouring each release.

Anyway, sorry about that – enough of the morbid thoughts. Don’t worry – I’m not going to start off by saying that its the best Bowie album since Scary Monsters, as this is only day one of my listening to the full album (courtesy of the new way of hearing albums on release date – the post midnight Apple Music stream until my CD arrives in the post). It’s a brave new world.

The album opens with the seconds short of 10 minutes title track. Driven by Bjork-like percussion and jittery synths and saxes, contrary to early rumours and the Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) single, this ain’t no jazz album. It’s a virtually rock free zone – the guitars are mostly heavily processed and the music is very electronic and playfully experimental.

I love the middle section of the track Blackstar – its pure old-school Bowie tied in with intriguing lyrics.

“You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the great I am (I’m a blackstar)”

Tis a Pity She Was a Whore has developed from the 2014 digital release (which had the feel of a demo if I’m honest). There is a real consistency in the sound of Blackstar, which continues with Tis a Pity…, a song littered with frantic sax (as is most of the album) and reminding me a little of Jump They Say.

Lazarus, oh my sweet Lazarus. I was excited about this album when I heard the evolving strangeness of the title track, but Lazarus took it all up a notch and is by far my favourite track on the album. I’ve played this song so many times since it was released digitally in late 2015.

The guitars on this track are just stunning, and I think Lazarus is shaping up to be one of my favourite Bowie songs since the late 70s. I love the arrangement especially the build up to the songs climax, as the guitars and drums reach their crescendo and then it quickly slips back to the nagging pace of the beginning, whilst adding some great bass and guitar interplay. Lazarus also sees Bowie delivering one of his sassiest vocals in many a year.

Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) appears on Blackstar shorn of it’s jazz trappings and in much shorter, but markedly heavier form. There is a feel of the Outside album at times, especially on this track.


Girl Loves Me is a weird little number. With vocal tics and incomprehensible lyrics, Girl Loves Me is Bowie at his most off-kilter, and sets up the final tracks, two songs that also happen to be the most accessible songs on the album.

Dollar Days is a great Bowie ballad. At times on The Next Day, some of the nods to the past felt a little like pastiche at times, but Dollar Days does not feel forced, even though it feeds on nostalgia.

Blackstar really feels like an album recorded with a band playing off a well oiled-ensembles strengths and Bowie seems to react to this (listen to the enthused yelps on Tis a Pity She Was a Whore).

I Can’t Give Everything Away opens with a musical nod to Low‘s A New Career In A New Town, and contains the return of the heart-wrenching Bowie vibrato in the chorus.

A simple, understated track that rises and drops, ending with some Fripp like guitar buried in the mix towards the end of a song that seems to be telling his audience to back-off a little – whilst asking for some personal privacy.

“Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent”

The album has much more consistency than The Next Day. On the first full play of Blackstar, I came to the end and realised I had been waiting to hear the inevitable album filler, but there wasn’t one. Bowie and his musicians do not waste a single note and no track overstays its welcome.

For an artist with such an influential catalogue of songs and albums behind him, to be releasing music this satisfying so far down the line is remarkable.

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Suzanne Vega – Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles

3 02 2014

Suzanne Vega - Tales from the Realm of the Queen of PentaclesTales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is the first album of new material from Suzanne Vega since 2007’s Beauty & Crime. Following on from Suzanne’s reclaiming of her back-catalogue, with the Close Up series, this is the longest gap between new albums.

The album was produced by long-time David Bowie guitarist, Gerry Leonard, who looms large on the album, adding most of the albums electric guitar and more than a hint of the alt-rock experimentation of Bowie’s excellent The Next Day from last year.

King Crimson/ Peter Gabriel bassist Tony Levin is joined by recent Bowie band-members Sterling Campbell, Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford to underpin a lot of the songs on Tales from the Realm…

Album opener Crack in the Wall is not a hybrid of two key tracks from Suzanne’s debut album but a delightful new track, with mandolin underpinned acoustic guitars, and a real live feel. It’s almost a statement opener – this is the sort of sound you would expect from a Suzanne Vega record in 2014. The surprises slowly start to seep through on the album’s second song, Fool’s Complaint, with a very early 70s sound (the backing vocals remind me of Transformer era Lou Reed).

Then along comes I Never Wear White – and this is the point where the album really shifts to new sonic territory. Built on a Stonesey riff, and a very in your face rock sound – just raw guitar, bass (from Levin) and drums (guitar/bass/drums – the killer formula). This is unlike anything else in the Vega back catalogue. Not a keyboard or acoustic guitar in earshot on this track.

“My colour is black, black, black…”

Portrait of the Knight of Wands is my favourite song on the album. Delicate layered guitar and discordant keyboards provide the palette for this moving tale. A subtle reverb on the lead vocal and a wide mix give this song space to breathe.

“His mission, the transmission of technology”

Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain features a 50 Cent sample, the sampled becoming the sampler! A shifting arrangement throws in some Zeppelinesque, arabic-sounding string parts, and a very unique vocal phrasing. This track cries out to be a single.

Jacob and the Angel really benefits from the Gerry Leonard production, with a guitar riff bubbling under the song that Mr Bowie would be proud of. Hand-claps provide the nagging beat, as the song slowly builds as it progresses.

The musically nostalgic Silver Bridge (which reminds me a little of the late 70s new wave of The Cars mixed with Springsteen’s sublime I’m on Fire) is another standout track that reveals hidden textures on repeated listening.

Song of the Stoic is a powerhouse of a song, and for me, the album’s centrepiece. Referencing the production experimentation of 99.9F° (my favourite Suzanne Vega album), the early instrumentation sounds like 19th Century, Deadwood era America, with rustic guitar and percussion that evokes the clanking of early industrial machinery. An intensely moving vocal line and cinematic arrangement make this one of the best songs Suzanne has ever recorded. I’m never going to grow tired of listening to this track.

Laying on of Hands / Stoic 2 has a wonderful dirty Velvet Underground sounding guitar line, and a very percussive backbeat. The album finishes with the optimistic Horizon (There Is a Road), offsetting the darkness of some of the albums preceding tracks.

Releasing a folk sounding record would have been a safe and unimaginative option but thankfully, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is a million miles away from being safe, and should prove to be a career highlight for Suzanne Vega fans.

Visit the Suzanne Vega website

Buy Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles on Amazon UK

Buy Tried & True: The Best Of Suzanne Vega on Amazon UK

Buy 99.9 F° on Amazon UK

Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks

30 08 2013

Opener The Eater of Dreams is a slow building, electronic heart beat monitor intro to the most electronic album in NIN’s eight album discography.

“I am just an echo, of an echo, of an echo…”

Nine Inch Nails "Hesitation Marks"

Copy of A gives a good taste of what lies in store – it’s an incessantly catchy track, with nagging, buzzing synths laid over a tightly tuned Blue Monday’esque drum machine.

Came Back Haunted features dark synth-lines, and a great classic NIN guitar riff halfway through the song. But you already know this, as the song has been available for over a month now.

The presence of Alan Moulder on the production side is telling with the sound of this album. Moulder  worked with Curve in the 90s, and there are some hints of the way Curve used dark electronics cut with brutal guitars on Hesitation Marks.

“Everywhere now reminding me… I am not who I used to be”

Whilst Hesitation Marks musically is a very different beast to the Nine Inch Nails of The Downward Spiral or The Fragile, lyrically its still visceral and although there are more synths than guitars, the music is still hard-hitting and atmospheric. The delivery may have changed, but there is no dumbing down or compromise on display here.

Find My Way is an early album favourite, with simple piano lines, Twin Peak’s guitar and a great Reznor vocal. Sometime’s less is more, and Find My Way is a very powerful song, different to anything I have heard from NIN before.

“Ghost’s of who we used to be. I can feel them come for me.”

All Time Low is driven by a very Talking Head’s like riff. I wonder if this is one of the tracks featuring Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham? I won’t know till I receive the cd on release day (this review is from the NIN website stream, so no album credits are available yet). A fairytale like synth motif bubbles away in the background as Reznor sings “We’re never gonna die, how did we get so high?”. A clever touch.

Disappointed will not leave you feeling so. Some lovely, subtle guitar playing in the background of the verses. One of the strengths of Hesitation Marks that is immediately apparent is that the tracks have layers that reveal themselves on repeated listening sessions. The last couple of minutes of Disappointed are a case in point – soaring guitars and keyboards, underpinned by nagging sequencers, drop quickly to reveal the lightly percussive melody and crisp drums. It’s like getting halfway through a really enjoyable meal and then bang, a new flavour hits your palate. And I do like a good meal!

Everything is almost NIN goes late 70s powerpop – NIN do The Knack! The heaviest and most uptempo track on the album, it’s short, sharp and to the point. It’s also the perfect length for a classic single, at 3.19.

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Satellite and Various Methods of Escape have a mid-80s Peter Gabriel feel to the music (yes, I really did just write that), with the latter track having a very strong, addictive chorus that counteracts the world weary lyrics.

Another reference to the 1980s is the appearance of bassist Pino Palladino on the album. I can’t hear any Wherever I lay My Hat type basslines here, but his touring with The Who (or his Tears For Fears work) was probably more of a reference point for his inclusion by Reznor.

The outro to Running, if included on a previous NIN album, would be awash with heavy wall-of-sound guitars, whereas the 2013 Reznor has a singular guitar line, backed by scraping keys and insistent beats.

The scent of Bowie can also be found on Hesitation Marks. I Would for You would not have sounded out of place on Bowie’s Earthling (and we know Reznor loves I’m Afraid of Americans from that album).

In Two is another album highlight – with shades of the breakdown in March of the Pigs, though the rest of the song bears no resemblance to The Downward Spiral track. I think In Two may contain one of the Lindsey Buckingham appearances, it certainly sounds like his playing in the background as the song builds to it’s (very) abrupt climax.

While I’m Still Here brings the album full circle, back to the electronica of the opening salvo, although at a slower pace. I love the keyboard work in this track, and the sax riff at the end. Sax on a NIN album? Heresy. It seems as if the experience of the soundtrack work with Atticus Ross is being utilised to give the band more colours to choose from, which can only be a positive thing.

“Yesterday I found out the world was ending.”

Album closer Black Noise is an instrumental continuation of the previous track, and presumably is a play-on-words on white noise, with the album ending in an explosion of sound.

Hesitation Marks has the potential to become my favourite NIN album. It lacks the rage of early albums, but what is the point of repeating what’s gone before? There is so much depth revealed on repeated listening, and I think over time this will surpass Year Zero for me. One of the best releases of 2013, I certainly think so.

Order Hesitation Marks (Deluxe Edition) from Amazon UK

David Bowie – The Next Day

1 03 2013

Here are my initial thoughts on the forthcoming David Bowie album, The Next Day. I should preface by saying that I’ve not got the CD yet, the review is from listening to the iTunes pre-release stream, so I won’t comment too much on the production, as the stream seems quite low quality and compressed. But it’s enough to give an initial impression (kind of like listening to an album on low bitrate FM radio back in the distant past).

The Next Day is a strong opening track, with clipped-guitars that are reminiscent of the Lodger era, and lyrically a real call to arms. The opening track is the first of several tracks on this album where Bowie rolls back the years and lets his vocals roar like they used to in the late 70’s.

Dirty Boys heralds the return of the sax! A real oddity, and all the better for it to my ears. He even manages to sneak in a guitar riff reminiscent of China Girl at one point towards the end of the chorus.

The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is quite simply a great Bowie single – driven by a powerful, driving bass-line, and topped off with 70s handclaps aplenty. Sounding like the bastard child of Absolute Beginners (who has shagged Time Will Crawl senseless). What a pretty baby. One of the songs on the album that gets better the more you play it. So go on, play it again.

Love is Lost is one of the more minimal tracks on The Next Day. Sparse drums and cheap sounding synths throb in a track that almost has a demo feel to it. Imagine the empty spaces of Sign O The Times by Prince for an idea of how this song sounds. I love the way that the guitars are often dirty and twisted on the album, and this track is no exception. The backing vocals are also classic Bowie.

“Oh what have you done?”

Where Are We Now? is the track that announced the return of DB. The (previously) most unBowie-like looking back and nostalgia of Where Are We Now? fits really well in the context of this album, which often references Bowie’s musical past . Which is not a criticism by the way, they are his tools, why shouldn’t he use them?

The end of the song is one of the most powerful moments in Bowie’s vast catalogue, and it’s reassuring to hear our rock stars growing old, some gracefully, some disgracefully. Just like us.

“As long as there’s me
As long as there’s you”

Valentines Day is the one track that I was slightly disappointed with on these first, early plays. Musically it harks back just a little too much and is close to becoming a Bowie parody at times, with it’s “sha la la’s”. The excellent lead guitar work towards the end and it’s subject matter (a high school shooting) does give it a bit more weight on repeated plays, and it’s starting to grow on me.

I’d Rather Be High also suffers from being slightly too retro – sounding like a mash-up of The Beatles and The Stone Roses at times. But in context, two potential disappointments out of 14 songs is not bad going.

Boss of Me has a strong chorus and more Bowie sax. If You Can See Me is gloriously chaotic, with an odd time signature, frantic drums and sped up backing vocals.

Every Bowie album has to have a space song, right? And normally they are one of the album’s highlights, so why spoil a perfectly good tradition. Dancing out in Space is the space song from The Next Day, and this clever pop song is driven by a Lust for Life type rhyhmn section, bubbling synths and a nostalgic Bowie backing vocal. This song would make a good third single from the album.

How Does the Grass Grow? is one of my early album favourites. It’s a kitchen sink of a song, with some West Side Story doo-wap thrown in, and sounding like it would easily fit into a remake of Lodger (one of my favourite Bowie albums). Tony Visconti is surely Bowie’s greatest producer – the drums and guitar mix are perfect on this track. The return of Earl Slick and the addition of David Torn on guitar are inspired moves too. Slick provides the link to Bowie’s past and Torn adds the spacey soundscapes.

Starting off with an almost heavy metal riff, (You Will) Set the World on Fire has a chorus that stays with you long after the song has ended. The most straight-forward rocker on the album, it makes a change from the songs either side of it, and is another possible contender for third single.

You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is the album’s second big-ballad. A welcome return of acoustic guitar high in the mix, the drums (especially in the song’s outro) are very Five Years. The mid-70’s Young American referencing arrangement works well on this song and Bowie gets the nostalgia quotient just right here.

If Bowie ever tours, you just know he would segue this with the aforementioned Ziggy Stardust classic. It’s written in the stars.

The Next Day ends on the album’s third big ballad. Mr Bowie, you are spoiling us. Heat has a hint of the Outside album running throughout, and also boasts the albums finest vocal performance.

Loosely strummed acoustic guitars build in intensity alongside a very synthetic, sci-fi backing.

“And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am”

It’s a great album closer.

I’m sure in this X-Factor era of pop music, when quality in the mainstream is often hard to seek out, the press will be all over this album, rating it as a glorious comeback.

To me, it is a very good comeback. But is it one of Bowies greatest albums? No, but I do think it’s the best Bowie album since Outside, and contains at least four songs (The Stars (Are Out Tonight), Where Are We Now?, How Does the Grass Grow? and Heat) that would not sound out of place on a Best of Bowie compilation.

And I’m happy with that. Welcome back David Bowie.

The Next Day – Amazon UK

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